“Only Ukrainians. That’s all. If you are Black, you should walk.”
That’s what an official told an African woman in Ukraine who was trying to get on a bus to Poland as Russian troops invaded the nation late last month. Jessica Orakpo, who’s from Nigeria, shared her experience in a video, which was posted on social media by civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump on Friday with the words, “Officials have to do MORE to ensure that all Ukrainian residents receive an equal chance to leave!”
“The Ukrainians are only prioritizing their citizens,” she said once she was safely out of Ukraine.
You can imagine how that went over.
After the video went viral, comments poured in with empathy not just for her but for other Black and brown people encountering horrific racism while trying to escape Ukraine. Social media commenters said things like “Shame on these Ukrainians. They are begging the world for help and yet they are treating people like this!” and “Amazing that even in a horrific situation ... skin color is still a priority.” Even in my own circle, I’ve had friends and acquaintances wonder, after they see ugliness like this on display, why they should care about a war on the other side of the world.
As disturbing as reports like this and others are, we can’t let the mistreatment of African and Indian students in Ukraine be an excuse to disconnect and turn away from what’s happening in Eastern Europe.
Too much is at stake. This is a global security issue.
Like a lot of folks trying to make sense of this frightening time, I’ve been stalking the Twitter feed of West Philly’s Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon. The University of Pennsylvania history expert has become a social media sensation in her own right throughout this crisis, with her Twitter following growing to nearly 100,000 followers in just a few weeks. St. Julian-Varnon is helping a group of stranded international students in Sumy, Ukraine, near the Russian border, that has been heavily bombarded since the invasion started. About 500 international students — mostly from Nigeria — are trapped in what has become a war zone and can’t be easily evacuated, according to the Guardian.
“I’ve been very careful with the information I share and the information I retweet because we do know that Russia has used anti-Black racism before and disinformation,” said St. Julian-Varnon, whose doctoral dissertation is on the Black experience in East Germany and the Soviet Union.
“That doesn’t negate the fact that there is anti-Black racism going on,” she added. “All I can say as a Black person who has lived in Ukraine, who has experienced racism in Ukraine but also experienced amazing welcoming and love from Ukrainians ... Ukraine has a history of welcoming African and Indian and brown students and they’ve continued that, and that’s why [people of color] are in Ukraine.”
I understand why people are upset by the accounts of racism taking place in Ukraine, but we cannot stop caring about the war. In nightmarish scenes, Russians are shooting civilians and committing all kinds of atrocities, including igniting a fire at a nuclear power plant. The global danger is real — and not just for white Ukrainians.
“If Ukraine falls to Russia, what do you think will happen to these Black and brown people?” St. Julian-Varnon, 32, said. “They are going to be killed. They are visible minorities. I’m in contact with a couple of students from Sumy State University ... [They] were trying to leave [and] got shot at. They sent me pictures of bullet holes in their luggage. So, this is very real. If Russia is widely killing Slavic-looking Ukrainian citizens, what do you think they will do to very visible minorities?”
St. Julian-Varnon also pointed out: “This idea that Ukraine is solely a white country is false and it’s harmful. Black and brown people will die in this invasion, and people really need to understand that.”
As this war continues to wreak devastation, it’s understandable to feel angry. But St. Julian-Varnon hopes we can find a way to channel that emotion more directly. “I urge people to use that anger to be pissed at [Vladimir] Putin. Be mad at Putin,” she said. “It’s his fault.”